2013 Honda Fit EV First Drive

Honda's first EV is friendly, practical, and easily livable. Too bad you probably won't get to drive it.

What It Is
The popular Fit subcompact, now with a dose of electric power.
Best Thing
Nimble and willing to drive, and just 3 hours to charge.
Worst Thing
Brake feel is still strange; you probably won't own one.
Snap Judgment
A great electric car hampered by limited availability.

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There are about 311 million people in America. Only 1,100 of them will get to drive the Honda Fit EV.

That's not necessarily a problem, of course. Fit EV customers are "self-selecting," said Honda, implying that little marketing needs to be done for the all-electric version of the Fit hatchback to find its niche. Honda has a wide array of hybrid vehicles, but this is the company's first "mass-market" (that phrase is relative here, of course) electric car in America since 1997's EV Plus. Like the EV Plus, Honda is holding onto a tight rein with the electric Fit: a lease-only car, sold in miniscule numbers to the sort of people who use the phrase "flyover country" with no sense of irony.

The Honda Fit EV ditches the Fit's 1.5-liter, 117-horsepower gasoline engine for an electric motor with 92-kW of maintenance-free power. The lithium-ion battery promises some lofty figures: 82 miles of combined range, with a high of 118MPGe, and a charge time of just 3 hours. That charge time is with a Level II 240v charger, provided by Honda. Regular 120-volt charging will take around 15 hours, for you patient types out there.

The Fit EV is one of those ideas that sounds like a win-win from the get go. The regular Fit is one of the better subcompacts on the market. Not only is it less ungainly-looking than the 50-state Nissan Leaf, the one competitor Honda singled out, and only loses a fraction of the incredible flexibility that makes the Fit so popular. So the question becomes, is the Honda Fit EV a worthy electric car in a world of cynics, or a compromised example of pandering to government regulations?

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Honda calls the distinctive and exclusive color of the Fit EV "Reflective Blue Pearl." Along with its purposely grille-less front end, the Fit looks like it's grinning, or holding back laughter. Blue elements in the headlights, a window-hugging rear spoiler, and the requisite "FIT EV" badges add to the Fit's distinction.

But that's about it as far as distinctiveness goes, and that's how Honda wants it. When Honda surveyed its potential customers, it found that they were evenly split between wanting something that looked futuristic, and something that looked like a normal car. With the Fit EV's combination of familiar shape and requisite electric-car weirdness, we say it's a fine compromise.

Besides, the regular Fit is already a little funny looking already.

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Sitting Down

It won't be the most surprising news in the world to tell you that the Fit EV's interior is fundamentally unchanged from the regular Fit. All Fit EVs come with automatic climate control and intelligent air conditioning, signified by a giant and bulky chrome-ringed lower dial. The plastic panels are painted light blue, and the rest of the interior comes only in grey. Passengers will find that the edge of the battery compartment nudges just up against their heels, and when folded the rear seats stick up a few inches above the cargo area.

To run the Fit EV down to an empty charge takes an impressive amount of skill. Honda implemented many ways to alert drivers to their next charging station. The Fit EV gets the standard Fit's low-res and dated touchscreen, but the navigation system shows the location of public charging stations. Concentric circles indicate how far one can drive in one direction, and in a two-way trip. All of the approximately 20 dealers that will sell the Fit EV are equipped for 240v charging, which the map can also indicate. Range is displayed prominently underneath the digital speedometer. If you do intend to push it for a road trip, the EV starts alerting you to its depleting battery at 15 percent, and it's around 8 percent when it really starts freaking out. At 6 percent, beeping the entire time, the Fit EV reduces power with even louder warnings -- and then, it stops.

Then there's the key fob and HondaLink iPhone app. The key fob is a dongle that can remotely start the car and initiate (or cancel) charging, while the app allows owners to schedule charging to take advantage of cheaper off-peak hours. Both of them display the amount of charge remaining. One cute detail: the charging gauge on the right shows an arrow to the left -- where the charging port is -- and a gas pump. But instead of a pump nozzle, it's an electric socket. Just in case you pull up to Texaco and forget.

Otherwise the Fit EV is started with a conventional key, which is turned as usual, but with none of the audible cues that indicate the readiness of a gasoline-powered vehicle. A starter button would go a long way to help consumers tell when the car's actually on or not.

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Given how well the regular Fit handles, we expected some of its character to be dulled with the inclusion of an arsenal of batteries. And good news -- the Fit is still easy and fun to drive. Think of a marathon runner wearing a rucksack: the spirit's still there, if not the energy.

There are three large buttons placed next to the steering wheel: Sport, Normal, and Econ modes. To get the most out of the Fit EV, drivers will find themselves switching between the three often. In Econ mode -- which seems kind of redundant -- the dashboard turns green, which might prompt you to go faster. In Sport mode everything turns red as if the car is angry at you. The entire system is adapted from the Honda CR-Z. We eked out a maximum of 72 miles of range from our short, mixed city and highway driving route, which soon fell to 51 miles in Sport mode. Econ mode puts the electric components -- cruise control, air conditioning, navigation -- on a strict diet of electrons, and stiffens the accelerator. Honda says that the Fit EV tailors its maximum possible range based on learning the driver's habits.

Honda set up a parking lot autocross course designed to show how the Fit EV handles corners at speed, compared to the Nissan Leaf. Through sheer ham-fistedness and the promise of a free lunch, the assembled journalists (including your humble chronicler) spent some time doing their darndest to break these state-of-the-art, technologically brilliant conveyances. With the Fit's smaller size, it's not an entirely fair fight. Indeed the Fit does compose itself through turns with more liveliness than the Leaf, and imparted a semblance of speed.

Ultimately, it was a silly exercise, as nobody will consider the Leaf against the Fit for their driving dynamics. Both cars squeal their tires from anything other than a standstill, howling more than Smokestack Lightning, and the cars' ample lean through corners pinball occupants left and right.

But in Sport mode, the Fit is lively and responsive, with near-instantaneous response from the electric motor to the accelerator pedal. That regenerative system acts with impunity, even aggressively -- rolling on a gentle downhill at freeway speeds for about 2 minutes, we marveled at seeing our range increase from 68 to 72 miles. Acceleration from 50 to 70 happens now, because low-end torque is the electric motor's trump card. Ultimately, the Fit EV is better suited for longer highway drives than the regular Fit: the gas-powered one bounces around far too much in urban settings, and it's not nearly as stable. And get this -- the Fit EV is quicker than its gasoline counterpart.

With the Fit EV, Honda set out to balance braking feel and regenerative efficiency. Regenerative braking is nothing new: it's a standard feature on any hybrid or hybrid pretender, capturing otherwise wasted heat from the brakes and sending it back into the batteries for charging. Yet, they've always felt clunky: regenerative brakes are more like an on-off switch, rather than a dimmer switch like normal brakes.

Honda tries to fix this with something it calls the Electric Servo Brake System. The brake control module varies braking pressure based on each wheel's speed, supposedly providing a more normal braking feel. The result is certainly better than the brakes in, say, the Honda Insight, but not the resounding success Honda wishes. You feel pulses and clicks through the brake pedal similar to what you get from an anti-lock system as it does its work. The brakes themselves, however, do an admirable job at bringing the Fit to a halt, with little drama.

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During our milquetoast first drive with the Fit EV, we made a lot of assumptions. We projected the regular Fit's capabilities and pluses onto the electric Fit, even though the two have deeper differences than just their power source. They're the kinds of differences that only make themselves known after, say, a week's worth of errands.

There's little reason, provided a proper 240v charge, how the Fit EV wouldn't excel at such daily tasks. But not many people in this world will know. Honda is easing into the all-electric market gingerly: only 1,100 Fit EVs will be built, at a rate of 550 each year for two years. They will sell in just a handful of cities: Portland, Oregon; Los Angeles, San Diego, and major metropolitan areas on the East Coast. They will be available through 3-year leases only, and at $389 a month; the total suggested MSRP of $36,625 is more than double the cost of a base 1.5-liter Fit, if you're playing along at home.

It's just the way Honda dipped into the hydrogen pool with the FCX Clarity: there are just 25 of the sleek burgundy capsules running around, mostly in Southern California. Given the Fit's capacity for being a real car, we'd like to see more of the electric runabouts. But ultimately, this car will be rare. Want exclusivity? Put down that Rolls-Royce brochure. Lease a Fit EV and put an NRA membership sticker on the back. It makes us wonder, then, exactly what Honda's getting at. The current Fit will be around for a couple more years, due to be replaced probably for the 2015 model year, right when the Fit EV's allotment will run out. Is Honda basically getting 1,100 people to do advanced prototype testing for the next generation Fit EV? Or is it simply throwing the car out there to meet California's low-emissions regulations? What will Honda do at the end of the leases, anyhow? The Fit EV's progenitor, the 1997 EV Plus, was also offered on a three-year lease. What happened to that all-but-forgotten electric car at the end of the lease? Honda took them back -- and crushed them all.

Honda is a company famous for never commenting on future product. But the Fit EV deserves a better fate than that.

Basic Specs

92kW electric motor, 20kWh lithium-ion battery, front-wheel drive, $36,625, 118MPGe basic specs

Michael Granne
Michael Granne

Nice review.  There is one available near me and I just need to think about pulling the trigger.


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